It’s a rivalry unlike any other in football — but not because it’s steeped in tradition.
There’s no storied past. You don’t see generations of fans who hate each other. No standout games you’ll remember to tell your grandkids. Ask a casual fan to list the best NFL rivalries, and Cardinals-49ers probably doesn’t even crack the top-10.
But you wouldn’t know that from the hype (at least on the West Coast) surrounding tonight’s Monday Night Football match up.
Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell went on the radio last week and talked about how much he hated the 49ers. San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith didn’t want to drop the h-bomb, but he admitted there is bad blood between the teams.
Arizona defensive end Darnell Dockett and 49ers tight end Vernon Davis got into a war of words on Twitter a few years ago. Davis and Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson have mixed it up on the field as well.
The teams were placed in the NFC West with the division realignment of 2002, but both were doormats early on. The Cardinals started to turn the corner in 2007. Led by Kurt Warner, they were a finesse team that relied on the passing attack. The 49ers were still bottom-feeders, but that 2007 squad was a grind-it-out, physical group that probably thought its division foe was soft.
That’s when the games really started to get chippy, and the individual match ups on the field were compelling: Davis vs. Wilson, Arizona wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin vs. San Francisco cornerbacks Nate Clements and Walt Harris, 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith and his relentless pursuit of Warner.
The Cardinals lost in the Super Bowl a year later while the 49ers just did a lot of losing — they also fired Mike Nolan in the middle of the season and replaced him with Mike Singletary.
Things may have heated up that off-season as well when Warner, a free agent at the time, visited San Francisco and seriously considered joining the 49ers.
He stayed in Arizona. San Francisco went on to sweep the season series in 2009, but the Cardinals still won the West. Those wins were the first of five straight for the 49ers. Arizona didn’t break that streak until Week 14 last year.
Tonight marks the fifth Monday Night Football game between the teams since 2007. MNF brings out extra emotions to begin with, so that has added fuel to the rivalry’s fire, too.
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt came from the AFC North, a division that knows a few things about rivalries, and he can feel the passion when his squad faces the 49ers.
“The feeling I have from being around it just these couple years is it does feel like Pittsburgh—Cleveland, Pittsburgh—Cincinnati, even Pittsburgh—Baltimore,” Whisenhunt told reporters last week. “This division has become a lot like that division, a physical smash-mouth type defensive division. These division games become brawls.”
Get ready for a fight.